Does Pinot Noir come in both red and white versions? Are they the same grape?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Does Pinot Noir come in both red and white versions? Are they the same grape?

—John, Victoria, Australia

Dear John,

Pinot Noir is a red wine grape, and most of the still wines made from Pinot Noir are red. However, it is possible to make a white wine from a red wine grape like Pinot Noir. (And all rosés are made from red grapes as well.) Of course, bubbly lovers are hoping I’ll mention that Pinot Noir is one of the official grapes of Champagne, along with the white grape Chardonnay and the red grape Pinot Meunier, and those sparkling wines are either white or rosé.

A key part of the red winemaking process is maceration, aka skin contact, when the grape skins and other solids are steeped in the fermented grape juice and alcohol acts as a solvent, extracting color and tannins from the grape skins. The longer the wine is macerated, the darker it gets, so, conversely, you can make a wine of a lighter shade, or even white, by reducing the amount of skin contact.

If you just press and ferment the juice of Pinot Noir grapes and skip the maceration, the juice will be pretty clear, and that’s how those rare “white” Pinot Noir wines are made. They can be very pretty wines, with notes of ginger and honey. Rosés are made with limited exposure to the skins.

Sometimes a winemaker might make two different shades of wine from the same grapes. The winemaker can “bleed off” some of the juice (the saignée method), making a rosé with that little bit they removed. The remaining juice will be more concentrated because there’s an increased ratio of skins to juice, resulting in a more potent extract of color and tannins.

—Dr. Vinny

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